Notes from Cory Doctorow Reading

Cory Doctorow, author of Little Brother, Makers, and many other other awesome books, came to Portland to promote his newest book Homeland. He spoke to a standing room only crowd at Powell's Bookstore.

He started by asking if people wanted a reading or a presentation, and everyone picked the presentation. These are my raw notes from his talk. He is a fast talker, so these notes are unfortunately incomplete (especially when it comes to the names of people he was talking about), but they should give you the gist of his talk.

He was a passionate speaker, polite to the audience during questions, and emotional when talking about Aaron Swartz's death.


Cory Doctorow
Homeland Reading at Powell’s Beaverton
  • “Show of hands: reading or presentation?”
    • all presentations
  • affluent school
    • all kids given macbook
    • they were the only computers allowed on the school
    • they had to be used for homework
    • student accused of taking drugs
    • he was actually eating candy
    • the laptops were equipped with software to covertly watch the student
    • they had taken thousands of pictures of students, awake and asleep, dressed and undressed.
  • thousands of school districts still use this software. they tell the students they will be covertly monitored.
  • group discovered the bulvarian government was infecting computers with software, and convert monitoring people; using camera, monitor, screenshots, read keystrokes.
    • the software was so badly secured it could be hijacked by anyone
  • carrier iq: installed on 141M phones
    • nominally used to discovered where there were weak spots in network
    • but it could be used to monitor where people were, their keystrokes, look at their photos.
    • eventually it was disabled, but only because people were able to investigate and discover what had happened.
  • laptop security software, under ftc investigation, admitted they used security software to monitor being having sex, to monitor confidential doctors conversations, recording their children having sex...
    • the ftc said “you must stop doing this... unless you disclose in the fine print that you are doing it, then it is fine”
  • us law made it a felony offense to violate authorized use on a computer; then prosecutors used that law to say that if anyone violate a EULA agreement or terms of service (which are usually absurdly one-sided), then you are violated authorizing use.
    • what would have merely been a breach of contract (a civil offense) then turned into a felony offense.
  • which brings us to Aaron Swartz
    • pacer
      • the system that holds case law (e.g. what judges have ruled)
      • which charges you 10 cents for every page.
      • the law itself is in the public domain.
      • there’s no copyright on it.
      • and the price comes from the days when computer time was expensive. not so today.
      • recap: is a web service and browser plugin
        • when someone used pacer to pay for case law, it made a legal copy, and put it in recap. 
        • when someone else requested a document already in recap, then it came from recap, saving them the money
    • jstore:
      • Aaron started to download lots and lots of documents from jstor.
      • aaron put a laptop into an open, unsecure closet (also used by a homeless person to store clothes), to download lots of documents
      • he was caught, released, and the process of law related to his case slowly ground on...
    • meanwhile, he went after a law called SOPA.
      • SOPA was a standard that nobody could rise to: if you ran a website that linked to Facebook, and anyone on Facebook shared something illegal, you’d be potentially libel. 
      • So Aaron went after SOPA with a series of activist moves...
    • Two years after being arrested, Aaron hung himself.
    • digital millenium copyright act: anticircumvention prevention. it’s a law that makes it illegal to change a device so that you access all of the programs and data on it.
      • if there’s software to limit access...
        • it’s against the law to disable that program
        • to give people the information to disable it
        • to help people disable it.
      • even if you own the device, you aren’t allowed to do what you want to do.
    • They revisit this every three years.
      • First they allowed phone unlocking
      • Then they revisited this, and decided not to allow unlocking phones
      • Now...
        • Five years or $500,000 penalty for first offense for unlocking your phone
        • Ten years or $1,000,000 penalty for second offense for unlocking your phone
      • It’s more illegal to change carriers than to make your phone into a bomb.
    • Barnaby Jones, security analyst...
      • Found a weakness in embedded heart devices with wireless access. Found that people could remotely access them, could potentially kill them, or distribute a virus to kill many people.
      • It’s vitally important to have a freedom to investigate and modify our own devices.
    • Cory asked Aaron Swartz how you would run an indie political campaign without being beholding to moneyed interests...
      • He replied back within an hour, with a whole design for how to do it.
  • Questions & Answers
    • Q: How the movie version of Little Brother going?
      • A: Hollywood is a black box. They say they want to make a movie right away. They mean it when they say it, they just say it about 100 more movies than they can really make. 
    • Q: What don’t people understand about Creative Commons licenses?
      • A: 
        • People tend to lump them all together into one, and that’s not true.
        • Other people also think that by merely doing that, it will be shared. But most stuff on the internet people don’t care enough to even pirate.
    • Q: Have you considered a collaboration with Neil Stephenson or Daniel Suarez?
      • I am doing a novella with Neil. Science fiction grounded in engineering that is plausible enough that people would try to build it.
    • Q: Is Facebook a paradigm shift or just another phenomenon?
      • A: Paraphrased comment from someone else: We made the internet very easy to read. But we didn’t make it very easy to write. And that was a mistake, because we let a man in a hoodie make an attack on all of humanity. 
      • It’s bad, but it’s just the tip of the iceberg. All schools are violating students privacy, following them around, monitoring their keystrokes. When any step that a kid takes to protect their privacy is confounded by the software.
      • We tell kids: “you must protect your privacy, it’s like losing your virginity” --> but then we invade their privacy. we can’t teach them that their privacy is important if we show them we don’t give the privacy.
      • screening software isn’t perfect...
        • it will always let you see things you wish you hadn’t seen
        • and it will screen things that you should be able to see.
        • it’s particularly hard for kids to get access to sites for LGBT issues, sexual assault information, etc.
      • the solution we’re using to try to protect them is worse than doing nothing. we should just do nothing.
    • Q: In a world of creative commons, where everyone is participating in recreating books, but what if people start remixing works all the time, and the remixes diluted the value. how will you support your family?
      • A: I think the future will be weirder than that. Yes that will happen, but I’m more concerned about spywhere in our devices.
      • Artists already are on the edge...most can’t make it. What we have is a weird power law distribution, where a few people make most of the money. 
      • You bank a lot of karma, and hope that when the times comes, you can pay it forward.
    • Q: Are people organizing boycots for apple’s find my friends? 
      • A: Kevin Kelly: talks about being a technological gourmet vs. a technological glutton. don’t just shove it all in. be selective.
      • Amish communities are not techno-adverse. they are techno-selective. They have people in the community who are adventurish, who try out new things, and tell them how it makes them feel.
        • So they make a decision to have cell phones, but they keep it in the barn. because if they keep it in the house, they’ll always be listening for it. but in the barn, they can use it for a medical emergency or other issues.
      • we’re really good at understanding how things work, we’re less good at understanding how they fail. So we see the things that are good about Facebook, but not the ways that it hurts us.
    • Q: What are your thoughts on jailbreaking?
      • I don’t think it should be illegal to jailbreak a device.
      • The problem is that you don’t know what jailbreaking software is doing, because that software is illegal. 
      • We would be safer if jailbreaking was legal, because you wouldn’t have to go a weird, blackmarket place to get it.
      • it’s like cars: it’s legal to change your tires, and so tire shops are regulated. if changing car tires was illegal, you’d have to go to a shadowy, grey market and you wouldn’t know what your tires were made of.



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